On this day in 1992, several hundred thousand people, mostly women, marched to the Mall in Washington, D.C., in support of abortion rights. At the time, the rally was one of the largest protest marches ever staged in the nation’s capital. Most of the marchers wore white, a color that was favored by suffragists and their successors in the women’s rights movement before they gained the right to vote.
When the march was organized, the U.S. Supreme Court was preparing to consider the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law that limited access to abortions. Abortion rights advocates feared the court’s conservative majority might overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which had legalized abortion. (Roe v. Wade, which introduced a constitutional right to privacy, held that women could legally end a pregnancy during the first two trimesters. The ruling reversed a century of anti-abortion legislation.)
The important test case was scheduled to be argued before the high tribunal on April 22. (The divided court’s eventual decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld women’s constitutional right to have an abortion, a ruling that still stands today.
As the 1992 presidential election approached, abortion remained a divisive political issue. The debate intensified during the 1980s as groups that either opposed or supported abortion rights strengthened their membership and political influence. However, after a dozen years of Republican control of the White House, abortion rights, though marginally weakened, remained intact.
In the wake of the march, several newspapers reported that 500,000 people had participated in the march. However, a few weeks later, after reviewing bus counts, subway ridership figures and aerial photos, the U.S. Park Police put attendance at about half that number.
Anti-abortion groups, smaller in number, held counterdemonstrations on the Mall. Some of them shouted “shame” and held aloft signs of aborted fetuses along the marchers’ parade route. Others set up a “graveyard” of 2,200 crosses, representing aborted fetuses, on the Mall below the Washington Monument.
Richard Morin, a Washington Post reporter, wrote that marchers “were mostly twenty something, mostly liberal, mostly Democrats and mostly veterans of previous abortion-rights rallies.”
Karen de Witt, writing in The New York Times, noted that the marchers had arrived in the nation’s capital from throughout the nation by plane, bus, train and car. “They included mothers and daughters, Hollywood stars, teachers, preachers and doctors, Republicans for Choice, Catholics for Choice and two [Democratic] presidential candidates” — former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and then-former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Sen. Paul Tsongas, “who has suspended his campaign but says he may re-enter the race, was there with his oldest daughter, Ashley. President [George H.W.] Bush, who has made telephone speeches to anti-abortion rallies, was at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md.”
The group of some 300 marchers from Southern California included such Hollywood figures as Jane Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jill Clayburgh and Morgan Fairchild.